Police need a warrant to search smartphones, Supreme Court rules

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | 6/25/2014

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that police must first secure a warrant before they can search a person’s smartphone and use the information against the individual.

The ruling was unanimous, 9-0, with Chief Justice John Roberts providing the court’s written opinion.

“Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life,’” Roberts wrote, citing other rulings that protect people’s rights under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.

“Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple – get a warrant.”

The Supreme Court examined two cases before issuing its ruling, both involving warrantless searches of individuals and their phones.

In one case involved a traffic stop in California, during which a police officer’s warrantless search of a smartphone in the driver’s pocket revealed photos and information about possible gang-related activity as well as a picture of a vehicle suspected of being used in another crime.

Police charged the individual, David Riley, a suspected gang member, in connection with crimes based on information they obtained from the smartphone. Riley’s attorney challenged the use of evidence obtained through a warrantless search. The California Court of Appeal stood with the police and their search, but the U.S. Supreme Court decision now overturns the California court.

In the second case reviewed by the court, police searched a “flip phone” belonging to Brima Wurie after observing him making a suspected drug deal from a car. The search of the phone turned up a call log, and police traced a frequently used number to Wurie’s home address. Police obtained a warrant to search the residence and found drugs, firearms, ammunition and cash. They charged Wurie with crimes related to drug trafficking. Wurie’s attorneys worked to suppress the information obtained in the cellphone search. A circuit court sided with Wurie, saying that cellphones are distinct from other possessions and the information on them is protected. The U.S. Supreme Court decision upholds the circuit court in the Wurie case.

The Supreme Court’s ruling does not prevent law enforcement from seizing a cellphone or smartphone to prevent the possible destruction of evidence while they work to secure a warrant. It just means they need to secure the warrant before they can search a phone and use the data against the individual.

The court ruling provides a limited number of exceptions – a suspected child abduction or terrorist activity, for example – where a warrantless search of a phone may immediately save someone’s life. Roberts wrote that lower courts can sort out whether an officer is justified in searching a phone based while invoking exceptional circumstances.

The Supreme Court concluded that warrants are a necessary part of the justice system and should not be viewed as an inconvenience or inconsequential by law enforcement.

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